Should you look askance at climate skeptics?

There’s been a massive shitstorm in the blogosphere since a left-leaning Melbourne lawyer, Legal Eagle, outed herself as a climate change skeptic on the SkeptiClawyer blog last week (Climate change, scepticism and elitism).

Legal Eagle also appeared on SBS’s Insight program a week ago when eminent climate change scientist, Stanford University’s Professor Stephen Schneider, was confronted with an audience of non-believers (sadly, Professor Schneider died a few weeks after the show was recorded).

Legal Eagle explained on her blog why she’s skeptical:

I am a lay person, not a scientist. I can’t make any effective judgments about the science behind Professor Schneider’s figures and projections.

I don’t have the scientific or the statistical capacity to judge the various accounts as to what is going to happen with our climate. I don’t know who is right or wrong about the ‘hockey stick graph‘

She goes on to say:

Just because there’s a broad consensus about something doesn’t mean that it’s right: sometimes the 1% of scientists who put forward an unpopular hypothesis with which 99% of scientists disagree happen to be right. Think of Alfred Wegener, whose theory of continental drift was rejected by most scientists at the time. Or think of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, who were in a minority of those who believed peptic ulcers were caused by a bacterial infection, and who turned out to be right. If we didn’t allow people to question the status quo, we’d never make scientific progress

Now unlike Legal Eagle, I am persuaded that the probability the scientists have got it right on climate change is high and that we need to take action sooner rather than later (most of my concerns are about what we should be doing about it). Here’s one blogger advising her on where he thinks she’s gone wrong.

But I don’t think she’s either a conspiracy theorist or a “denialist”. She’s really a climate change agnostic rather than a skeptic. She worries that she will be labelled as a right-wing, holocaust-denying lunatic. While things don’t seem to have gotten that bad, some of the negative reactions to her outing were strikingly judgemental, for example the same blogger says:

I can’t speak for Legal Eagle’s friends, colleagues and students, but I for one will continue to look more than a little askance at somebody who declares that they’re both a progressive and a climate skeptic

Legal Eagle bemoans the fact that the public discussion of climate change has become politicised:

The main thing that worries me about the science is not the science itself, it’s the tenor of the debate. It’s so polarised. It seems to have become politicised in an ugly way. Maybe it’s inevitable in academia. In my own field, I see certain people’s viewpoints shouted down because they’re not mainstream or popular in various camps. I don’t like that, regardless of whether I agree with someone or disagree with them

And even though I’m not a skeptic on climate change, I have always loathed the easy and glib way that dissenters are labelled as “denialists”, as if they’re all up there with the likes of David Irving or Lord Christopher Monckton. That’s an awful term. This post is an example of what seems to me to be a pretty reasonable tone (Do the recent floods prove man-made climate change is real?).

I think there are parallels in this episode with some of the debate about urban issues. People get wedded to ideas that are emblematic of how they see themselves and how they want to be seen. There’s an element of group identification around key policies and the values they are presumed to represent.

I think this is seen in the views of some sections of both the road lobby and the public transport lobby, both of whom are so certain of their point of view that they’ll happily engage in spin and politicking to advance their beliefs. The mission becomes the overriding objective and any conflicting information is avoided or even demonised.

That’s probably “just life”, but we’d all be better off I think if we strive to keep an open mind and to follow the scientific practise of listening to the evidence.

As an aside, the Legal Eagle “outing” episode shows just how big the non-mainstream media world is. SkeptiClawer got 287 comments on this issue, Larvatus Prodeo got 195, Catallaxy got 164, Tim Blair’s blog got 53 and the Insight web site got over 500. Anyone not plugged into the net wouldn’t even know this debate had happened.

22 Comments on “Should you look askance at climate skeptics?”

  1. Michael says:

    I haven’t had the time to read any of the other threads you mention, but I’m pretty much over these self styled “skeptics”. You seem to have a soft spot for this character and maybe she is worthy of pity rather than contempt, but the climate “skeptics” industry is all about politics and you would have to be pretty lazy not to connect the dots especially since their is a mountain of evidence already.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Ha! You’re not the first to use that description. Robert Merkel’s criticism of her was titled “The intellectual laziness of climate skepticism’.

      I read her article at the time she wrote it and watched her on Insight. She’s not a looney, just someone I think who can’t get their head around the science (she is after all a lawyer, so I’d cut her some slack on that score!).

  2. quokka says:

    I’d say have to say that some of these people have got a bloody cheek calling themselves sceptics. The real sceptics are of course the practicing scientists – the Hansens, Trenbeths, Joneses, Schneiders and many, many others. Repeated assessment and reassessment of new work as it is published, evaluation of data quality. processing methods, assumptions etc etc. Thats scepticism in practice.

    Declaring that “I don’t know if the hockey stick is valid or not” or “I distrust models” and thinking that confers the right to the title “sceptic” is sheer arrogance, laziness and pig headedness. If you either cannot understand it or do not want to make the effort to understand it, the only rational response is to defer to the knowledge of those expert in field. People do this all the time in life including matters of life and death, for example in medical care. But when it comes to climate, the utterance of some meaningless nonsense is supposed to demand respect? Oh please!

  3. Matt says:

    She’s a lawyer, a profession only suitable for kids who aren’t good at high school science. QED.

    She can’t understand the science, as she admits, so therefore her skepticism is an irrelevance.

    I have my cycle blog, but I also have a clean air blog. I am frustrated by what I call “woodsmoke pollution deniers”. There are people out there who think the only thing coming out of a flue is carbon dioxide and it’s the black stuff in smoke, despite CO2 being an invisible gas. Then they tell you wood smoke is “natural” so therefore it must be good for you. It’s scientific ignorance dressed up as folksy cheer. It’s the same space homeopaths exploit, and let’s face it, creationists too. Fund better science education I say.

  4. Bruce Dickson says:

    Your concerns over what passes for public debate and consideration of important issues these days (such as climate change) are accurate indeed Alan.

    The divide in the US is particularly chronic over so many big issues of the day and of the century. And as many would have observed already, has moved beyond irrational to the point of often being totally wacky, extreme and more than a little frightening.

    The best explanation I have seen for this draws upon your point concerning values. People are increasingly no longer even listening to different points of view to their own … and even when they do, they interpret everything instantly from within the prison of their own seemingly set in concrete, pre-existing ‘values’ and biases.

    If your comments/views happen to fall within their emotional response range here, then you can more easily stretch any point you make to the most paranoid, conspiratorial and crazy conclusions imaginable. And this will most likely be accepted.

    If you happen to be arguing against their values in some way, no argument you make (no matter how accurate or well articulated) will ever be conceded; no position on their part ever changed or challenged. Simply because everything you say, once you have been appropriately and instantly boxed, will be reinterpreted to suit their narrower, pre-existing values based outlook.

    This state of affairs also sees right wing Republicans and tea-baggers only viewing Fox ‘news’ (sic) and taking great satisfaction and reinforcement from its as extreme (or usually more extreme) positions on most social, political and economic issues.

    But, on the other hand, only reading and viewing more liberal/progressive media outlets and blogs if you happen to sit somewhere on the left is commonplace behavior as well.

  5. I’m Legal Eagle’s co-blogger, and I can assure you that gaining entry to Melbourne University’s law school (or Oxford’s, where I studied) requires you to be exceptionally good ‘all round’. I can math the pants off most people (that, for better or for worse, is my ‘science’). I chose law because science and math pay shit. There, I’m at least honest about it.

    Lawyers are very clever. Law and medicine are the two areas where the best and brightest throughout the Anglosphere have been going for the last thirty years. If that irritates scientists, so be it. It isn’t lawyers’ fault.

    I witnessed this debate unfold at my own blog and elsewhere after LE published her post. I have never been a climate sceptic. I am now having my doubts. The proponents depend so heavily on ad hom and decrying their opponents as ‘stupid’ or ‘pitiable’ or ‘lazy’ that I suspect their fundamental case may be unsound.

    A little lesson in public policy for you: you can prove all the science in the world, but policy — unlike science — requires broad consensus. It also requires laws, laws that need to be well drafted. Badly drafted laws tend to produce more of the harm they were designed to correct, something we lawyers know only too well.

    Last time I looked, laws tended to be the responsibility of the legislature. You may not like lawyers, but you do have to be nice to us. And you have to learn to make your case absent abuse.

    • Michael says:

      The problem you have just produced an example of is the run away egoism that dominates the age we live in. You are skeptical/you aren’t – who cares? You’re a lawyer not a climate scientist. There are lots of people in the world as smart as you whose opinions on the topic are also of marginal relevance. Your expertise is in law and your opinions on what colour sofa you think would go with the curtains or whether you think certain foods taste nice is about as important as the next persons. Of only slightly more relevance are the opinions of scientists not working and publishing actively in the field. Science isn’t an attitude it’s a method and practice. The most insidious nonsense in this debate is that ignorant morons feel aggrieved at not being taken seriously. There is no real barrier to anyone publishing their work. They just don’t. My pity has all been exhausted.

  6. Matthew says:

    “Lawyers are very clever. Law and medicine are the two areas where the best and brightest throughout the Anglosphere have been going for the last thirty years. If that irritates scientists, so be it. It isn’t lawyers’ fault. ”

    I am not trying to be abusive, but I really have seen little evidence of that. As we all know self-asserted truths are hardly truths at all.

    The thing I, a software engineer, lament with my lawyer buddy is that we both say we should have chosen science instead of both of our current careers. We’re quite bored with our respective careers. Me I have done something about it by going back to uni.

    I do think lawyers are upset because scientific truth doesn’t get worked out in a law court.

    As for being abusive of climate skeptics I think it is fair game. The graphs, the data, the reports are all out there and the case is impeccably presented, and yet there are people who are politically motivated running around going that’s not true with their fingers in their ears. The IPCC summary report for policy makers is worth a read. I suggest it to everyone.

    As for public policy, it may all require consensus, but at its heart it should all be based on sound science. Take my efforts to try to get woodheaters banned. Anyone understanding the chemistry, the toxicology and the epidemiology of woodsmoke would stand on the banning side of the fence. But I can’t get any traction because the general populace is incredibly ignorant of all those things.

  7. nico says:

    After seeing Legal Eagle with the late and sincerely lamented Stephen Schneider, and reading her blog and most of the comments, I conclude that the harsh judgment of some commenters is correct: that she is giving aid and comfort to the enemy. This may seem extreme, but IF the world’s climate scientists are correct, there’s no time for messing around, no time to waste while lawyers get their heads around the science, no time to delay taking mitigating steps. (If the scientists turn out to be wrong, then we may have improved the world anyway.) What also concerns me is the false dichotomy, perhaps the result of the adversarial legal mind wanting a case for the prosecution and a case for the defence. There is no debate between “denialists” and the science. (Any more than belief-based creationists can meaningfully debate evolutionary scientists.) One proposition is a a belief, one is evidence-based deduction. Both could be right or wrong, but they are apples and oranges which cannot be directly contrasted. Of course, there is vigorous debate happening in the scientific literature and on the more reputable websites, and that is where Legal Eagle and her co-blogger should be exercising their minds, not wasting time with the credulous or self-interested. If lawyers are so clever, as claimed by SL, they should have well-developed disinformation-detectors, and not fall for the politically motivated advocacy of the so-called sceptics.

  8. quokka says:

    Some of the most contemptible nonsense put forward about “the climate debate” is the recurring charges of elitism leveled at scientists and advocates of strong policy for mitigation. This stuff is faithfully reproduced on SkepticalClawyer.

    It goes along the lines of it’s an issue for middle class Western elites, who don’t care if struggling families have to pay $50 per month for their power bill and action for mitigation would be a disaster for the development of poor nations.

    Aside from the blindingly obvious points that issues of poverty and development are overwhelmingly questions of political economy and geopolitics, and that the external costs of polluting energy production are in effect a regressive tax, this piece of arrogance neglects what the population of the third world actually think about climate change and what sort of world they would wish for themselves and their descendants.

    The World Bank has published a study of opinion in the developing world on climate change. The PDF is here:

    The message is quite remarkable. Belief in the serious nature of climate change is strongest in the poorest countries and belief in the necessity for mitigation even at the cost of slower economic development is strongest in the poorest countries.

    Some of the false “sceptics” should digest this before engaging in tiresome attempts to play the “class card”.

  9. Alan says:

    Please let’s all take a step back and a deep breath. As a scientist (for clarity sake I work in the fields of vertebrate conservation and evolution) I support the premise of skepticism – it is a key requirement for robust science. What I don’t agree with is the manner in which vested interests/political partisans of all shades have hijacked the term. Denialism is not skepticism and not all skeptics are denialists.
    By all means attack those who are overt denialists but it does more harm than good to take the same approach with those who are skeptical and open-minded. IMO there is sufficient scientific evidence on the web to suggest climate change is occurring – so why not use this invaluable resource to help convince them???

  10. Moss says:

    Might I suggest a revised version of Pascal’s Wager for intelligent but non-experts like Legal Eagle? If the existence of anthropogenic climate change cannot be demonstrated to her satisfaction, then she should believe as though it is occurring, because she (and subsequent generations) have nothing to lose and much to gain by doing so?

    Oh and on the whole “intelligence of lawyers” thing, here is a nice aphorism I came up with when hearing Richard Dawkins spout his tripe: “Being highly intelligent doesn’t make you right, but it certainly makes you better at being wrong…”

    • Matthew says:

      “Richard Dawkins spout his tripe” is a disrespectful statement. I think all of the venom and bile used against Mr Dawkins is completely misplaced and a sad reflection on the people attacking him and not on the man himself. I find him respectfully honest and keen to find truths. I found The Ancestors’ Tale a better book to read than the God Delusion, but that is because the subject matter is more interesting. Still neither of those books were anything like tripe.

      Pascal’s Wager has always been a trite argument.

      • Moss says:

        Tripe is actually a very appropriate word to use when discussing Dawkins’ philosophical and theological views. It might be tastey (daring, vitriolic etc), but ultimately it is bad for you (leads to a lazy extremism unsupported by rational argument). He is truly a great scientist, but a terrible, terrible philosopher. And yes, I am “qualified” to make this argument with degrees in both science and philosophy.
        And you might consider Pascal’s wager “trite”, but in the context of global warming perhaps you could explain how it fails to be relevant?

  11. jack horner says:

    Scepticlawyer is turning to the sceptic side because s/he is put off by ‘ad hominem’ remarks directed at sceptics.

    That ‘because’ makes a pretty bad syllogism.

    NB also:
    ‘You’re wrong because you’re stupid’ [or for some other *irrelevant* reason relating to personal characteristics] is an ad hominem argument

    ‘You’re wrong for relevant reasons A,B,C & D, and by the way, if you believe that you must be stupid’, though perhaps discourteous, is not an ad hominem argument.

    If you’re concerned by ad honminem remarks just ignore them and have a look at a few of the dozens of reputable ‘debunking the climate sceptics’ websites.

  12. Jeremy says:

    Wait, what? Since when has “Legal Eagle” been “left-leaning”?

  13. Russell says:

    Lawyers are the brightest and the best? SL should have made better use of her time at university. I financed my way through two degrees by working in the uni libraries – they have separate libraries for law, medicine, engineering, music etc.

    If SL had met more students from other faculties she would know that really bright students are in all the faculties. As she admits, the law students are often the most mercenary, they like the arts but want a job with the money.

  14. Alan Davies says:

    There’s a comment from Nigel Brunel on the version of this post published in Crikey yesterday. You have to register – for those who prefer not to, he says:

    “I can understand agnostics or atheists existing when it comes to religion but not climate change.

    Climate change is a peer reviewed scientific fact. If you cannot accept that — then present your own science and have it peer reviewed. The great thing about science is that nothing is certain and there have been great examples of science getting in wrong. I urge people to question the science and be sceptical but don’t do it by opinion or musings — present facts.

    If you do not believe in manmade climate change when there is a mountain of peer reviewed evidence proving its real — then you either live in a cave or cannot read (or be bothered to read) or you are just plain ignorant.

    A person is entitled to their opinion but not their own facts”.

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